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Colma – The City That Runs on Dead People

Maybe it was on account of growing up in New York City, but as far back as I can remember, I wondered “Where do all the dead people go?” Not in the “Is there an after-life?” sense, but where do we physically put them? I’d be crushed against somebody’s armpit in the subway, knifing my way through tourists on Fifth Avenue, crawling behind shoppers on lower Broadway, and yet I could go months without passing a cemetery. Where was everybody (deceased)?

Well, they were not in Midtown. There’s only one still “active” cemetery in Manhattan, according to the city paper New York Metro. Burials in New York are “restricted to Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens,” says Anthony Desmond of Canarsie Cemetery (New Jersey).

Yup. Even the dead can’t afford to “live” in Manhattan anymore.

And then there is Colma. When I first passed through Colma, which is less than five miles south of San Francisco, where I live, I was struck with how quiet it was. Then I realized – here’s where all the dead people go. It’s studded with cemeteries. A Greek one. Italian one. Japanese and Serbian. One for pets. Maybe one for Serbian pets, for all I know. With a little “digging” (pun intended) I “unearthed” (ditto) that Colma has 16 cemeteries, composing ¾ of the land mass. The dead outnumber the living by 1,000 to one. (1.5 million versus 1,400) Wikipedia refers to it as a “necropolis,” so that gives you some idea. On its own website, the “Welcome to Colma” sign looks like it’s inscribed on a tombstone, and its official slogan is “It’s great to be alive in Colma.” (Beating out, “Colma: It’s to die for.”)

Unlike New Orleans, which we spotlighted last week, and whose tourist industry treats them like macabre props, in Colma, the dead know their place. Namely, in graves. When someone talks about the underground scene in Colma, they mean the “under ground” scene. In Colma, they call an ambulance when somebody FINDS a pulse. The only time Colma “lights up” is on certain “day of the dead” holidays when Chinese families visit the cemeteries and bring picnics and set off firecrackers.

Celebrities who would never be caught dead there when they were alive are buried in Colma now. Joe DiMaggio. Wyatt Earp. William Randolph Hearst. A couple of mayors and governors, a major bank founder. Levi Strauss, of the jeans empire. Actually, when you peruse the list, with the exception of DiMaggio, Colma evidently even has difficulty attracting A-list corpses.

Colma became a “gateway” city – “Gateway to the Great Beyond?” – “Gateway to the After-Life?” – when San Francisco not only banned new cemeteries from being constructed, but removed the ones it had and shipped them to what was then called Lawndale. It was easy to do, since the dead don’t vote. (Except in Chicago, where historically, it was said they formed a formidable voting bloc.)

The other flourishing industry in Colma, appropriately enough, is flowers. Also funeral homes, of course. (There’s also a Target and a Starbuck’s nearby, because there’s a Target and Starbuck’s nearby everywhere)

Considering that there are currently 300 million people in the U.S. and seven billion in the world, I still have no idea what happens to all the dead people. Even though cremation is increasingly popular, a lot of folks still choose to get buried. But at least now I know where some of them go: Colma.

So if Colma is where Saturday night goes to die, where does Colma “beat” a city like San Francisco? I’m betting in the making out of Wills! (You knew I’d get to our “topic of the month” eventually, right?) If you live in a big city where neighbors and co-workers “pass away” and are never seen again, and where cemeteries aren’t even permitted, it’s pretty easy to put your (hopefully) eventual demise out of your mind. There’s the occasional wail of an ambulance siren rushing by, but on a day-to-day basis, death is remote. (Ok, Florida, I don’t mean you.) But when mortality is staring you in the face – literally – every day – you also have to face making out your Will. No two ways about it. I’d venture Colma ranks very high in percentage of Will-maker-outers.

Fortunately, though, you don’t have to “live” in Colma to be reminded about it. That’s what we’re here for. Because life is for the living. Colma, and Wills, are for what comes after.

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